Legislation would allow service dogs in VA hospitals
By LEO SHANE III | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 17, 2011
WASHINGTON — Kevin Stone and his service dog, Mambo, have been inseparable for three years. So the disabled Army veteran was shocked last fall when officials told him Mambo wasn’t allowed inside his local veterans hospital.
“They said a dog meant too many health risks and concerns, and that I wouldn’t need him in the hospital anyway,” said Stone, who suffered spinal damage and severe brain trauma in a 1985 accident. “I told them he’s my partner, he’s crucial to my independence. We work together in everything. But they wouldn’t budge.”
Unlike seeing-eye dogs for blind veterans, service dogs like Mambo aren’t guaranteed entry at VA facilities under federal law. Instead, individual administrators are given the discretion to admit or refuse the animals, leaving owners like Stone frustrated and vulnerable when seeking needed medical care.
On Thursday, officials from AMVETS publicly backed new legislation from Rep. John Carter, R-Texas, to mandate service dogs have access to any VA facility, recognizing their importance to veterans’ physical and mental health.
"We have spoken to veterans who have had to leave their dogs outside the door because they don't fall within the regulations," Carter said Thursday. "This bill is fixing something that need fixing."
AMVETS officials said the use of service dogs to assist wounded troops with brain injuries and missing limbs has increased in recent years, and will likely rise even more in the coming decade. The animals can act as an extra set of hands or legs for troops with severe physical injuries, and provide protection and a sense of calm for veterans suffering emotional trauma.
That value, they said, makes it critical that lawmakers address the rules governing their access to VA facilities.
Last week, Veterans Health Administration officials issued new rules permitting “guide dogs and other service dogs” to accompany disabled vets into all VA medical facilities, although limits would still stay in place for animals used only for emotional support.
But Carter and the AMVETS officials said that federal legislation is needed to ensure those rules aren’t changed at the whim of VA officials.
Stone, an accomplished Paralympics archer who frequently volunteers at military hospitals, has said that VA facility officials usually allow Mambo to accompany him for one-day medical visits. But for longer, in-patient treatments, he has been told to leave the dog at home.
“You wouldn’t ask a below-the-knee amputee to leave his prosthetic leg at the door,” he said. “That’s basically what they’re asking me to do.”
Stone got around the rules by having Mambo classified as a prosthetic by VA health officials, one of the first service dogs in the country to be recognized that way. Now, he said, facility managers reluctantly accept the animal’s importance to Stone’s health, and allow him in.
He’s hoping a federal law will prevent other veterans from having the same fights.
Carter said he expects to draw bipartisan support for the measure, and predicted the legislation would pass quickly. He also said that he didn't see the measure as a criticism of the VA, but instead a much-needed correction to a potentially harmful oversight.
Kevin Stone scratched the head of his service dog, Mambo, during a press conference Thursday outside the Capitol. New legislation introduced by Rep. John Carter, R-Texas, (left) would allow service dogs inside VA medical facilities, a decision that's currently left to the discretion of the facility managers.
LEO SHANE III / STARS AND STRIPES